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Burnham bemoans lack of regional power

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Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) has said the region is being “held back” by a lack of power.

Appearing at the Local Government Association conference on Wednesday, Mr Burnham said further devolution would help to address the challenges posed by Brexit and called on the government not to abandon commitments to further empower mayors and combined authorities.

“Somewhere like Greater Manchester is ready to go. We know what we want to do,” he told delegates.

“Currently we’re being held back by the lack of power to make it a reality, nowhere more obvious than in transport, where we just simply do not have the levers that will enable us to build that 21st century transport system.

“I would say to the government, for those from the government here today, it was your idea - you promised us a northern powerhouse, don’t go back on it now.”

Asked to specify what further powers should be devolved, Mr Burnham said rail would be “number one”, referencing the chaos caused by changes to train timetables in recent months.

He also questioned the accountability of Highways England and bus services, claiming that the varied governance for different means of transport made it difficult to integrate them.

The remarks echo those of Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotherham (Lab), who called for northern rail franchises to be brought under Transport for the North in June.

Mr Burnham accused the government reneging on pledges to devolve powers on transport and skills.

“What I see at the moment is the government trying to unpick some of the commitments it made: going back on commitments on transport [and] weakening commitments on adult skills. I would say to it that is exactly the wrong thing to be doing now,” he said.

Despite these concerns, Mr Burnham said that the creation of mayors had made it easier to put regional issues on the political agenda in Westminster, including rough sleeping and homelessness.

He has previously called for more devolution to address the housing crisis.

However, Mr Burnham’s enthusiasm for devolution was not shared by everyone in the audience.

Philippa Hart (Lib Dem) from South Cambridgeshire DC said that her experience of having a mayor in Cambridgeshire was “nothing like as upbeat”.

She said: “The people of Cambridgeshire don’t feel that they’ve had power devolved to them. They have got power devolved to a single person who’s got a lot of money to spend and I don’t necessarily think they think it’s been done universally in their best interests.”

Mr Burnham also called for further devolution to help address the challenges posed by Brexit.

He said: “I would argue that devolution is the best and most coherent answer so far that Westminster has created [to respond] to Brexit.

“Westminster created Brexit and by definition it can’t be the answer to it. Westminster created the north-south divide; it created the housing crisis. The time has come of a very different way of doing things.”

Mr Burnham added he would advocate an elected House of Lords, the scrapping of the whips system in the House of Commons to let MPs vote more freely and limiting central government to “the big things” - with education, health, and work and pensions delivered regionally.

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